Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 1, 2012

The Tea Lords (2010), by Hella S. Haasse, Translated by Ina Rilke

I chose this book for a ‘readalong’ as part of Dutch Literature Month at Iris on Books because as a former teacher of Indonesian language, I’ve been to Indonesia and know a bit about their history and culture.  The Tea Lords is about a Dutch colonist who in 1870 follows his father’s footsteps and develops a tea estate in Bandung, but it was written in 1992 (well after the Declaration of Indonesian Independence in 1945), so I thought it would offer an interesting post-colonial Dutch perspective. But it was a disappointment, from that point of view.

Haasse is one of the Netherland’s most notable writers,  described on Wikipedia as ‘the Grand Old Lady’ of Dutch literature whose oeuvre includes historical novels, documentary-historical novels and contemporary works. The daughter of a Dutch civil servant in colonial administration, she was born in 1918 in Batavia in what was then the Dutch East Indies, now Jakarta in Indonesia.  After secondary school she went to study in the Netherlands, (narrowly avoiding the Japanese Occupation of Java, only to experience the German Occupation instead).  Her debut novel Oeroeg was set in the Dutch East Indies and published in 1948, amid the bitter military and diplomatic conflict which was eventually to culminate in the Dutch conceding to Indonesia’s independence in 1949.  (Alongside postwar decolonisation of all the old empires, most of which took place without bloodshed).   I haven’t read Oeroeg but reviews by Indonesians on GoodReads show that it contrasts a childhood friendship between a Dutch and an Indonesian boy, a friendship tested in adulthood when Oeroeg becomes a nationalist.

But what is said to be Haasse’s ‘magnum opus’ The Tea Lords, written more than 40 years later, sidesteps anything to do with Indonesian nationalism or any critique of Dutch colonialism because the story finishes in 1918.   (That was the period when the Dutch were repressing emerging Indonesian nationalist movements.)  The novel is a work of nostalgia set in a lost world, celebrating the achievement of the colonist Rudolf Kerkhoven who through hard work and thrift establishes a successful tea, coffee and quinine plantation and becomes rich.  Along the way he marries a wife called Jenny, raises a family, and has unresolved conflicts with his parents and siblings.  And in his old age he realises that money and status isn’t everything.

However, although this family-saga plot sounds old-fashioned (and it is) the book is not a typical historical novel.  It’s fictionalised non-fiction a.k.a. documentary-historical fiction, based on letters and journals of the actual Kerkhoven family.  This allows the book to present an authentic portrayal of colonial life and attitudes, free from any inconvenient post-colonial angst.  The author, translator and publisher have even chosen to use the old Dutch colonial spelling of Indonesian words, rather than contemporary Indonesian spelling which was first reformed in 1947 and again in 1972.

What’s more, The Tea Lords references the novel which denounced colonialism, Max Havelaar, which made me wonder even more about these authorial choices.  According to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Max Havelaar (1860), was a powerful critique of Dutch colonialism.  Multatuli (the nom de plume of the author, Eduard Douwes Dekker) means ‘I have suffered greatly’ and the book exposed the poverty and mass malnutrition caused by the forced-agriculture policy in Java.   Multatuli’s novel was so influential that by the 1870s critical public opinion in the Netherlands had forced the end of mandatory quotas of commercially tradable crops produced at the expense of staple foodstuffs in Indonesia.  Nevertheless under Dutch rule the use of arable land for cash crops instead of growing rice continued through the period of Haasse’s novel and well into the 20th century, causing great hardship.  As late as the 1990s  in Yogyakarta I could still see the effects of childhood malnutrition: some of the elderly Javanese were the tiniest people I have ever seen.  But The Tea Lords has no ‘black armband’ about this or any other aspect of colonialism; it is the story of a successful colonist, no more.   The Javanese plantation staff are bit players, mostly off stage, occasionally a bit uppity but mostly happy to work for Kerkhoven, who is, by his own lights, a fair and reasonable employer.  In contrast to Oeroeg, there are no childhood friendships across the colour bar in The Tea Lords.  Kerkhoven’s children have an idyllic childhood but they seem not to play with any of the plantation’s other children.  Was Kerkhoven representative?  More representative than the depiction of colonists in Max Havelaar?  Whether it was intended to or not, this novel raises many questions if one reads between the lines …

I hesitate to be critical of a pre-eminent Dutch author, but I can’t help wondering what Haasse was thinking when she wrote this book.  The absence of Javanese from her canvas made me wonder about her sources.  Did Kerkhoven live amongst the Javanese for a lifetime and never mention them in the letters and journals that the author accessed?  If so, what should a contemporary author do about this?  With whatever authentic sources she had at her disposal, what choices did she make in her representation of him as an employer? Do these sources show the real Kerkhoven or an idealised version of him?

Readers who form the impression from The Tea Lords that the Dutch were ‘better colonialists’ than others in the game, (see comments here) might well check out the very brief rule of the British, who took Indonesia from the Dutch during the 1814-1815 Napoleonic Wars.  The British have plenty to answer for in their own imperial history but their regime is regarded by Indonesians as comparatively benign.  Lieutenant Governor General Stamford Raffles stopped the slave trade, introduced partial self-government, abolished the forced-agricultural system and placed limitations on the opium trade.  He also discovered Borobodur under its mantle of volcanic lava and began the process of restoring it.  Unlike the British in India who built railways from one end of it to the other, the Dutch built no major infrastructure or development projects in Indonesia: on the contrary, they used the profits from their colony to build the infrastructure that supported their industrial economy back in the Netherlands.   As anyone who’s ever visited Indonesia knows, they still don’t have any decent roads or railways…

As I said in discussion about this book at GoodReads, this book made me start thinking about how an author of historical novels might tackle writing about a colonial period today.   For characters to be authentic, they can’t have a post-colonial consciousness, but one can assume that today’s readers do, and that so does the author.  The Tea Lords is a late 20th century work, when the Dutch were long gone from Indonesia and the Indonesians were able to start telling their own stories.  The Dutch did at different times in the colonial period undertake some reforms to improve the situation for Indonesians, and today they are world leaders in the field of human rights.  Shouldn’t that awareness of human rights inform a pre-eminent Dutch author’s work?  How can a reader reconcile this nostalgic story celebrating colonialism with the reality?

I couldn’t help contrasting Haasse’s view of the colonial world (as depicted in this book) with a near contemporary book, Penelope Lively’s 1994 memoir Oleander, Jacaranda  Reflecting on her British childhood in colonial Egypt, Lively openly acknowledges that she ‘did not see’ things that were right in front of her, such as the poverty of the Egyptian people.  Of course an historical novel is not a memoir, but Haasse made choices to write her book the way she has.  These choices prompted rebellious thoughts as I read The Tea Lords.  I wanted authorial intervention that drew attention to what’s missing in her characters’ observations; I wanted some kind of acknowledgement of Javanese dispossession.  This could have been a far more interesting work if Haasse used an Austenesque wry commentary that shows up her characters’ flaws as they relate to the people whose land they’ve taken.

Marilyn at MD Brady in discussing historical fiction in general, has encapsulated my feelings of dissatisfaction about the simplistic portrayal of colonialism in The Tea Lords:

Even within an historical context, actions like massacring your neighbors because you want their land are wrong. Just because the settlers of the American west believed it was their God-given destiny to conquer its inhabitants doesn’t mean that an author has to simplistically support their actions or condemn them without bothering to understand them. An author can indicate distance from the mainstream views of a period through techniques like voice, point-of view or language without putting anachronistic words in characters’ mouths. As suggested, having a character marginal to the dominant culture is often an excellent device in historical fiction, one which more and more writers are trying. For example, women may not be able to be feminists, but they would be able to observe and be critical of the mainstream perspectives if only silently.

In the course of following discussion about this book, I came across a comment from Helen at a blog called Tales from the Reading Room.  It encapsulates exactly what makes me feel uneasy about The Tea Lords:

I don’t think that any historical fiction can authentically recreate the past, it can only give us flavours. So I would expect a modern novel with an historical setting to do something different to a novel written at that time – perhaps to show the world from an unusual perspective, from the standpoint of someone who’s been ‘written out’ of history, in a certain sort of style, and yes, maybe to comment on it too.

Hella Haase was not some hack writer of historical fiction aiming at an uncritical mass market.  She was a major author of some distinction and she knew exactly what she was doing with this novel.  She was choosing not to engage with the issue of colonialism, choosing not to include the voices of the Javanese, choosing not to show us what their lives were like, choosing not to depict the emergence of nationalism, and choosing not to write about reforms that were undertaken and reforms that were desperately needed. In the late 20th century, those were authorial choices that imply a lack of respect and empathy for the colonised people.

Was Haasse was influenced perhaps by some kind of political revisionism of colonialism?  Wikipedia says that there are some Dutch who are nostalgic about the lost power and prestige of their empire, and maybe an uncritical novel about the courage and enterprise of the tea lords had popular appeal?

Would I care about any of this political correctness if The Tea Lords were a page-turning historical novel?  Probably not.  But The Tea Lords is far from a page-turner.  It is too bound to its historical sources for that and some of it (especially Kerkhoven’s interminable rivalry with his siblings) is downright boring.

I’ve been hard on this book because it didn’t live up to my expectations. The Guardian reviewed it more generously here.

Author: Hella S. Haasse
Title: The Tea Lords (first published as Heren van de thee in 1992)
Translated by Ina Rilke
Publisher: Portobello 2010
ISBN: 9781846271717
Source: Personal library.  (Mine is the paperback edition that has the (quite nice) cover at the top of this post and the link to buy it below; this much more gorgeous cover is the hardback edition).



  1. What a great analysis of the problems with so many historical novels! Thanks for that–and for quoting me. I am currently reading Sarah Thornhill and have some of the same problems with it that you articulate so well here.


    • I am an admirer of Kate Grenville’s work, but Sarah Thornhill was a disappointment. I’ll look forward to your review – what great discussions we have here online as we share our ideas about the books we read!


      • Yes. The discussion certainly enriches my reading. I have finished Sarah Thornhill and am pondering what to say. Basically I agree with you. The book is real testimony to the need for your project of reading Indigenous writers.


  2. Really interesting. I’m currently reading David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I knew little about the Dutch East Indies and I think THIS novel is historical fiction for modern readers, set in Nagasaki on Deijima, an island in the harbour where the Dutch traders were allowed to live and do business. The voices of the characters seem very real.


    • Hello Margaret, welcome! I have The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet on my TBR (I’m a fan of Mitchell ever since (a) I read Cloud Atlas, and (b) *swoon* met him at a book signing here in Melbourne). Thanks for the reminder that I should read it soon!


  3. Well, that was brutal… It’s easy to see that your lit.crit. views are very heavily slanted towards post-colonialism ;) I found the following comment interesting:

    “Would I care about any of this political correctness if The Tea Lords were a page-turning historical novel? Probably not.”

    So, does that mean it’s OK for books to be un-PC provided that they do it in an entertaining manner?

    Just playing Devil’s advocate here ;)


    • Hey, you don’t have to travel much in Southeast Asia or know much about Africa (where I once lived) to be very aware of the negative effects of colonialism, and I never forget that our entire Australian society is built on the colonial appropriation of indigenous land and we still haven’t negotiated a treaty. If my views are slanted, there’s still a long way to go to make up for centuries of the discourse being slanted the other way, eh?
      While I’ll cut some slack for C19th writers ‘of their time’ I don’t have a lot of patience with contemporary ones who want to sanitise or glorify colonialism. It’s either odd or ignorant, IMO.
      But you’re right, I am inconsistent LOL I overlook all kinds of flaws if I’m romping through a book that’s just jolly good fun.


      • I couldn’t agree with you more, Lisa. There is so much out there denying our colonial past that we need to emphasize the damage done especially when trying to break down the silence with which the colonizers have sought to cover their actions.


        • This is why I’ve wondered about the existence of any indigenous US writing. I grew up on ‘cowboy and indian’ films which always showed the savage ‘Red Indian’ trying to massacre the Brave Pioneer, Today we would call them freedom fighters trying to defend their land from invaders. I’d be very interested to read a book written with that POV, but I wonder if it could ever get through the cultural gate-keepers…
          It’s interesting that Australia has just about sanitised its own brief colonial history out of collective memory. After WW2 we took control of Germany’s colony of Papua New Guinea until the Whitlam Government gave it Independence in the 1970s, Nobody remembers that now- which is why a recent book called The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska (reviewed on this blog, is such a worthwhile contribution to our literature (and a jolly good unputdownable read as well).


  4. […] Lisa discusses her problems with the lack of critical reflection on the Dutch colonial past in The …. She does so very thoroughly. […]


  5. A fine and great analyses and review, with indepth background information. I’ve learnt quite a bit today, reading this history. Sometimes, we tend to forget that colonisation did not take place only in Africa. Thank you for sharing


    • Celestine, have you read The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattachariya? I learned about colonisation in Guyana from that book. (My review is at It’s an entertaining coming-of-age novel but it also shows the social problems in the population mix which derives from colonisation by the British, the Dutch and the French. There are descendants of these ‘master races’, of the original indigenous population, of the enslaved Africans; and of indentured races – from India, China and Madeira. It’s well worth reading, if you can get hold of it.


      • Thanks, Lisa. Will make a note of it to check the bookshops. I am doing a dash to the link. Thanks again.


        • Yes, there are Native America writers who tell the other side of the story, but I have read only a few that impress me as literature. I have considered reviewing Leslie Silko’s Almanac of the Dead for your reading group, but haven’t gotten around to rereading it. She is Laguana and includes Mexican American Americans in the book. Are they “Indigenous”? They were treated as if they were when Anglos arrived in the southwest after the 1850s. The book is more like Carpentaria than historical fiction about contact. I also like Sherman Alexie, a fun writer but also with a more contemporary focus


          • That sounds interesting. Have you ever come across Malinche’s Conquest by Australian author Anna Lanyon? ( It’s a long time since I read it so my recollection is sketchy but (in part) the book explored what the meaning of indigenous might be through the story of Malinche (an indigenous Amerindian woman) who was taken by Cortes to be his interpreter and concubine: her descendants thus became the first mestizos. I think the book is available in America because there are reviews of it by Americans on GoodReads.


            • I haven’t read Lanyon’s book, but I have read lots elsewhere about Malinche. The stories are different in Latin America and the US; Spanish vs. Brit/Amer. The cowboys and Indians images so many of us carry are from a couple centuries later–the US post-civil-war wars that the US fought against them. I am thinking about writing a post on different ways in which indigenous is defined in different types of colonization. US and Austr seem unique in colonist actually taking land and wanting to settle. More later as I figure things out. I think I need to read a general books on colonization.


              • A post like that would be really interesting, Marilyn. I’m a bit preoccupied with Russian Lit at the moment but will keep a look out for a similar sort of book here too.


  6. […] I read Lisa’s post on the book which managed to articulate much of what was going on in my mind, but that I never managed to put […]


  7. I stopped by here following a link on Iris’ latest post. FASCINATING and enjoyable review! I just got back from a trip to Amsterdam so this is eye-opening. My husband works for a Dutch company; this experience has its own interesting cultural ‘viewpoints’, shall we say. It does make me think about how the world has evolved, ie colonialism. My perspective is American, from Kansas living in New England now.


    • Hello Care, thank you for your kind comments, and my apologies for the delay in approving the comment. I’m away from home at the moment and internet access is a bit difficult.
      Like you, I find the whole issue of colonialism and de-colonization intriguing, and I find novels exploring it from any angle fascinating. I think we have a long way to go in unpacking its impacts, that’s for sure.
      Best wishes, Lisa
      PS I love Iris’s blog, she writes so well, about such interesting topics!


  8. […] had some doubts about Haasse’s magnum opus, The Tea Lords (see my thoughts here), but despite some reservations, I found The Black Lake (the title by which Oeroeg is translated) […]


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